Why the New York Public Library Is Being Sued

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The New York Public Library's controversial renovation plan — which has attracted no shortage of public criticism over the past several months — is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by a group of preservationists and scholarsAiming to stop the library from removing its research stacks from its iconic Fifth Avenue building, the suit charges that the imminent plan not only violates its charter, which establishes the institution as a research facility rather than a circulation library, but "will surely doom the NYPL's mission to serve the public's research and reference needs." Plus, it alleges, "if the stacks are destroyed, the books — the unique and distinguishing asset of the NYPL — can never be returned to their rightful place under the Rose Main Reading Room."

Among the plaintiffs (who are represented by the nonprofit Advocates for Justice) are architect Mark Alan Hewitt, publishing veteran Jack Macrae, and Pulitzer-winning historian David Levering Lewis. But they are not the first, and likely won't be the last, to blast the library for its consolidation plan, which is estimated at $300 million and involves selling the the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library so their operations may be integrated into the main branch. (The removal of two to three million books, to a storage space in New Jersey, ostensibly makes room for this integration.)

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Memorably, in December, Wall Street Journal architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable authored a scathing, nearly 2,000-word essay arguing that the library's plan would sufficiently "undertake its destruction" and compromise the accessibility of its holdings

This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library's original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don't "update" a masterpiece. "Modernization" may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language.

Huxtable, then 91, died only a month later. But her cause carried on. Soon came harsh judgments from The New York Times' Michael Kimmelman, who warned library officials that "the last thing they’d want to be remembered for is trashing their landmark building and digging a money pit"; The Nation's Scott Sherman, who noted "the willingness of [NYPL's] president, [Tony] Marx, to put forth dubious assertions"; and Policy Mic's Jewelyn Cosgrove, who stressed the importance of "preserv[ing] the very nature of public use libraries." There was even a May 8 rally opposing the library plan:

But library president Tony Marx argues that the building itself is "physically failing," its stacks effectively unworkable, rendering such drastic changes necessary. Library spokesman Ken Weine said yesterday that the plan will "improve libraries for all New Yorkers," while the Daily News' Jenny Che has voiced support for the decision to ax the decrepit Mid-Manhattan branch. But what is done to compensate for that absence, however, remains at the heart of the controversy — and the broader discussion regarding what it means to have a public library that is accessible to all.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.